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White House Chronicles

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America 12, Jackson 11, James K. Polk 10, Henry Clay 5, Linda Gasparello 5, Benton 5, Washington 5, Oregon 4, Africa 4, Llewellyn King 3, Lyndon Johnson 3, Us 3, Tennessee 3, Balkans 2, Andrew Jackson 2, James Capel 2, Webster 2, Buchanan 2, Mexico 2, Nixon 2,
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  WHUT    White House Chronicles    News/Business. Wisdom  
   and wit from leaders.  

    January 3, 2010
    6:30 - 7:00pm EST  

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--www.ncicap.org-- >> hello, i'm llewellyn king, host of "white house chronicle." but first, a few thoughts of my own. it has long been a mystery to me why people who are concerned with the future of africa were not concerned enough for the future of women in africa, and i am talking about 50 years ago
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and longer, when there were lots of movement for freedom, democracy in africa, yet they were among men, and liberals who held them -- european and indigenous who helped them in my homeland, for example -- they ignored the women. one of the great workers for women's rights in zimbabwe was an english woman who had been trained as an actress, married an aristocrat, and devoted her life in africa to helping africans, but not women. much later on, it became clear that the women are the key to the future of africa, and i was pleased that very recently i met with two african women here in washington who came to receive a prize for their work. i asked them what they thought
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about the opposition movement in zimbabwe, and they said that is going to be about arguing about who gets to get driven around in a mercedes. we need to give people seeds, and we need to stop the violence against women, domestically and politically. we have not got time for politics like that. oddly, of all of the things they want to do to help -- and they have a web site, woza, where you can see what they are doing, helping women at the ground level, not looking for money and not looking for political office. it is very encouraging. i wish when i were a young man and was working in these movements that i had realized that we were overlooking the vast talent of africa's women. we are going to talk about history on our program today. it was one of the most
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interesting men writing about history. his name is robert merry, and he has written a marvelous book on president polk. we will be right back with a very wide ranging discussion, bringing history to the present and the present back into history. >> "white house chronicle" is produced in collaboration with whut, howard university television. now, your program host, nationally syndicated columnist llewellyn king, and co-host linda gasparello. captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org-- >> hello again and thank you for coming along. i enjoyed by linda gasparello, and i promised you -- i am joined by linda gasparello, and i promised you robert merry.
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i know him quite well as a journalist and as an historian. there are not many who cross that line, but those who do tend to do it quite well because they write in a way that people can read, not in an academic way. i think your book on -- you're wonderful book about american journalism was seminal, about a decade ago. then he wrote an excellent book about the troubles in europe, the disintegration of yugoslavia, america's role there, and now you have come out with this book, "a country of vast designs: james k. polk, the mexican war, and the conquest of the amecan continent." and here we are, that book that i fail to remember the name of was a "sands of empire." i learned more than i had known before on the balkans.
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>> two chapters on the balkans. >> and very complete. tell me, why should i be interested in james k. polk? >> by calculation was that james capel collides in the black hole of america's consciousness. that james k. polk collide -- resides in the black hole of america's consciousness. my aim was to tell the story in as compelling away as possible. >> tell us, his presidency was just before the civil war? >> yes, he was elected in 1844, served from 1845 to 1849. he was one of the youngest people elected president. he was 49, one of five presidents elected in their 40's. he gave up the presidency at age 53, from three died shortly thereafter. he literally worked himself to
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death. not the majority of our presidents have been more pridents. he was one. many believe that he maneuvered us into the war with mexico so we could gain territory from mexicans, which he did. >> texas and california. >> correct, and all of the southwest. he was also negotiating with the british over territory, oregon territory. >> with britain, which was interesting. >> he came very close to going to war with britain over oregon territory. >> it would have been ill- advised, but i do not know. >> it was foolhardy because he was already flirting with war with mexico, and the war between the two of them would have been a disaster. let me clarify to your viewers what this president did in a single four-year term. he brought into the country -- he expanded the coury by 1/3,
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and brought in territory that represents the three states -- washington, oregon, idaho, parts of wyoming, ponce to montana -- parts of montana, and texas came into his watch. that whole swath of territory was not american when he took over the presidency. it was america's when he left the presidency, and he accomplished that in a single four-year term. >> what are the lessons that he left for today? >> there are a lot. one of the big lessons was if you take the country to war, make sure you do not do it under any pretext. we have seen that in our own time. a lot of people believe that george w. bush was not totally forthcoming withhe american people. lyndon johnson was not forthcoming about the gulf of tonkin incident, and james polk was not forthcoming. he maneuvered the country into war without telling america that his undlying aim was territorial expansion. when that became clear, it
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sapped his political standing significantly. >> was the unpopular when he left office? >> he was a president with a great deal of iron will and a great deal of determination to get what he wanted. he was willing to expend a great deal of political capital. as a result, i think he sacked his political stamina. >> in perusing your book, because it is a substantial volume -- in preparing for today, i was struck by the fact that he was not confrontational. he was not mendon johnson -- lyndon johnson. he endured buchanan, his secretary of state is terrible antics, and yet you say he was an iron will demand. these are not tolerances of iron-willed men, are they? >> he was a paradoxical. when it came to face-to-face confrontation, he was -- there is no better word for it -- a coward. he could not handle face-to-face
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confrontation. he was willing to outmaneuver even his friends behind their backs, and help to rationalize that without any qualms whatsoever. but the cannon was -- but buchanan was totally disloyal to his president. he was anxious to become presidt himself, he was maneuvering against polk himself, and he did not have the gumption to fire him. >> how would we define him in today's world? we define everybody as liberal, conservative. where would james k. polk fit? >> he was what we would call today a conservative populist. a conservative populist is a person who believes that the best repository of judgment in the country rides with the -- resides with the people, not with elites. here believes in small government, strict interpretation of the constitution, and he believed keeping power as diffuse as possible. he would have been like ronald
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reagan in our time whereas his great opponent, henry clay, also the great opponent of james k. polk plus great mentor, andrew jackson, and they're great 20 cents a person would have been franklin roosevelt. >> at the end of the day, is it the litany of human folly, or is it something more? >> it has been called that, a catalog of crimes and follies. that is what some people have said about history. certainly, the more you get into it, the more you see an awful lot of folly, but you also see a lot of heroic actions on the part of people. you see movements that are worthy of reverence. >> and things do get better for lots of people. >> sometimes, sometimes not. >> in western europe, life is better than it was 200 years ago print it is in many places -- to
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the years ago. it is in many places. we are on sirius xm radio. myself, llewellyn king, my co- host, linda gasparello, and my special guest, robert merry, the author of "a country of vast designs," about president paul. >> talk to us a little bit about james k. polk as a man and where he got his expansion of vision. how was that generated in his life? >> as i mentioned, he was a jacksonian, who was a great patriot and believed in american greatness. as did his opponent, henry clay. but he had a more constricted view of how to create greatness and how far we should go. clay was a little bit wary about oregon territory, where is jackson wanted that territory and polk wanted it as much as jackson did.
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i would say it primarily came from jackson and his political mill you. but let me say this, there was really an explosion of expansionist sentiment in america when word filtered around washington that john tyler, james capel's predecessor, was negotiating with texas -- james k. polk's predecessor, was negotiate with texas to bring it into the night states. all of a sudden america could become a country that straddled an entire continent, positioning itself to dominate two oceans. there had never been anything like that in the history of the world. that explosion occurred. we pretty much accomplished everything we could under that rubric. >> can i just check on somethin that you said? there has there been a country like that in the history of the world. russia was a continent-sized country. >> big, yes, but it did not
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position itself to dominate two oceans. >> it did not dominate them, but it had access to them. >> india takes up the whole subcontinent. >> not in the same way. >> i do not think there was ever a country that was as unchallenged on two oceans as the united states. >> righto. >> once this emerged, and polk at this moment is a political has been. he had lost twice. he had a good career in the house, 14 years, speaker of the house for two terms. chairman of the ways and means committee. governor of tennessee. then he was-then he was defeated by a young upstart backwoodsman who was a backwoodsman. polk prided himself on his owledge and was very serious. jim jones was the tall guy from
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the back woods who ran rings around him in terms of the rhetoric of the campaign. he lost twice, so he was considered washed up. then this explosion occurred, and two very significant developments occurred. henry clay, who is going to be the wig presidential nominee, came out against the immediate annexation of texas. and martin van buren also did, and it weren't -- a ruin their careers. at the democratic convention in baltimore, then during could not get the nomination, and they needed a compromise candidate. james polk came out of the ashes of his career to get the nomination. >> that is utterly amazing in the way that history does that, where something like -- turning polled, a has been coming into president. what was his relationship like
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andrew jackson? he was a supporter. how did he do that? >> he was a total mentor, a friend of the family. he was about 27 years old or so, much older, so he was somebody that james k. polk revered. he was a hero by the time poking into his ability to understand what was going on in america. jackson had a great hold over him. he went to -- he was a real mentor, and pole was his protege. he asked how to jump-start his career. he asked about who he should marry. jackson told him who to marry. of course, it was all very incestuous because all of these people in tennessee, the upper crust, believed that people should be marion within that group, and so it was all-should be married within that group, and so it was all -- that you have these elites,
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right? -- >> you have these elites, right? of these players, who would survive into a's political environment, do you think? it does not sound as though polk would. >> it was not a heroic figure, in a lot of ways. he was a suspicious minded fellow like nixon. he could not fire people like nixon. he harbored his ambitions quietly. he was not expensive. and yet he was very smart like nixon, and he was very determined to get his goals accomplished. >> i would love to have interviewed nixon. when i have liked to have interviewed polk? >> if we had conversations over drinks and we happen to notice that jimmy paolk was down there
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with a drink, when we invite him to be with us? probably no. he was a sanctimonious fellow. >> tell me about his family, his wife. >> his wife was quite vivacious and considered kind of an antidote to his mordred personality. he loved her dearly. -- to his morbid personality. he loved her dearly. he was very sickly as a young boy. his father was worried about him, and he could not do any work on the farm, the plantation. his father thought, maybe i will apprentice him to a merchant because he probably do that. he hated that. he wanted to continue schooling. then they diagnosed that he had urinary stones. this was at the turn of the century before last, so heat -- his father bundled him up, took him to a pioneering doctor in kentucky by the name of nephron mcdowell. mcdowell had crafted a surgery,
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carved up to the public floor to the prostate, no anesthetics -- 17 years old. i cannot imagine how long it took. it had to be at least an hour. he had some brandy, i guess, and maybe a piece of wood to bite down on. and they removed the stones and he renewed his life. but based on what we know now about the nerves that line the prostate, it is very likely that he was sterile and did not have children. >> i have read somewhere that churchill had this false that may be great men of history were sickly or and well, that marks was -- and that marx not very well. maybe james k. polk was one of those who knows their own life
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is going to be short and you have to get it done now. >> i think he was very aware of his own mortality as a result of that, but he was also absolutely determined. by the time he gave up the presidency, he came to hate the job. he was not a robust consciousness type of person such as roosevelt, who loved the job, or reagan, who would not get down on anything in terms of what was going on. it really got to him. >> such a great orator, such a wonderful speaker in webster. how did he and polk get along? >> not very well. webster was sanctimonious in his own way. he was a wihig. i would also like to talk about thomas benton. he was a big man with a big face
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full of crags and the beat of a nose. he sort of gave off an impression that he did not have much use for the mutterings of lesser men, which was a category that included most of the people he came into contact with. and he had a gun battle with andrew jackson on the streets of national as a young man. they were friends for a long time. he was jackson's a decamp in the war of 1812. but jackson had consented to be the second in a duel of a frid who was having a friend with benton's brother, jesse. jesse -- the benton's were trashing jackson all over national. >> that idea. >> they both were wounded, and benton was persona non grata in
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tennessee, going and it's the hero of new orleans. so he goes to missouri -- going against the hero of new oeans. so he goes to new orleans. tyler called in the most grating political maniac that i ever knew, but he was brilliant and he knew how to move people and get things done and move in the congress. >> like lyndon johnson. >> in many ways. >> if we had doing today, how many of our senators do think would be laid out? >> most of them would not take the challenge. what is amazing is that benton became a grea jacksonian. they became good friends and he was a loyal adherents of the jackson movement, also a good pal of polk, until his son-in- law had a court-martial, and then benton turned on james k. polk with a vengeance. he would not even the knowledge him in church. they went to the same church.
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>> this may be a little unfair, but you are a great journalist as well as a great historian. in the historical context, where do you think obama will fit? this is an extraordinary moment in american history where it is unlikely and african-american would be elected to the presidency, and we have one. >> it is a pretty amazing development, it isn't isn't it? >> the split-- i keep talking ae split between jackson and henry clay. we have been more jacksonian in our politics since reagan then we have with henry clay or fdr, for example.
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clearly, barack obama is a clay man, and fdr man. he is now in the process and has a lot of pretext to bring a significant amount of power to washington, and he is doing it as aggressively as he possibly can. i am not sure he is going to succeed. i am not sure the time is right for something like that. in my view, he is moving on a number of fronts that could up and him. he is a marvelous politician wi a marvelous political temperament, and we will see how does. >> is there another president you can think of who is in a similar position historically as president obama? he has had to shoulder many of the same problems? >> yeah. i mean, i would compare him in terms of his positioning with fdr because he came in in a crisis, as did fdr.
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disagree with. actually, i tend to read with what i disagree with. why do you think we like politicians? why do you like politicians? >> for one thing, they are people that you might like to call personal entrepreneurs. they put their whole life and consciousness up for criticism. i used to say when i covered politicians -- and i did for many years -- that they put their image and reputation on the chopping block and then say to the american people, here i
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am and you are open to now take a hatchet to this. that takes a certain breed, and those are people with a lot of -- the blood is coursing through their veins at a nice clip, and those people tend to be fun to be around. >> to what extent do you think we as journalists are destroying the political culture with our endless scrutiny of the larger- than-life people, the people who dominated the senate, preparing to -- are frightened away, if they have had love affairs, if they made money, if they have been outspoken. we and our scrutiny tend to throw out a little gray people who have done nothing or nothing we can find out that they have done. are we damaging the political class with that? >> ielieve we are. i have been against
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he issued in 1944, the year that james polk was elected. he was talking about america as a nation on the move, america as a nation of plans, a nation of the future, a nation of fast designs. that is really what was happening in america at that time, and polled wanted to sort of attack that energy and that vision and that dream -- to tapd
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that dream, and that is sort of what happened. >> what about cold and slavery? this was during essentially the beginning of the run up to the civil war. >> polk has been accused of wanting the mexican war and the territory from mexico so he could expand the slave culture and slavery in america. that is not fair. that is not true. what is true and what is totally fair is that he was utterly morally out of it in terms of slavery. he did not understand any of the more -- any moral dimension to slavery. he was a slow learner-he was a slave owner, but he did not have enough consciousness about why the people in the north would be fixated on the moral question of such dimension. he wanted the issue to go away. >> and we have to go away.
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thank you, bob, for coming on our program. we will be back next week. until then, is the run up to christmas. enjoy yourselves, and drive carefully. cheers. captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org-- >> "white house chronicle" is produced in collaboration with whut, howard university television. from washington, d.c., this has been "white house chronicle," a weekly analysis of the news with in sight and a sense of humor featuring llewellyn king,
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linda gasparello, and guests. this program can be seen on pbs stations and cable access channels. to view the program online, visit us at whchronicle.com. to view the program online, visit us at whchronicle.com.